PORT ANGELES — Contenders for a 24th District state House of Representative seat squared off at a general election forum at which the challenger threw verbal punches while the incumbent calmly took the heat.
Democrat Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend and Republican Brian Pruiett of Sequim took part Friday in the 50-minute question-and-answer program sponsored by Sequim Sunrise Rotary.
“I need to see better focus from our Legislature,” Pruieutt said, insisting he, not Tharinger, was the right man for the job.
“That’s why I think it’s time for you to retire and let me take over and do what I know how to do, which is take care of our citizens and people and be responsible and have a good life for the rest of us.”
Said Tharinger: “If we are arguing over the stuff today, we’re not working together for our future, and that’s really what I’m about, finding pragmatic solutions for our future.”
In this, the first time the two had met, Pruiett and Tharinger were given two minutes to respond to questions, with no time allotted speciufically for rebuttals.
They are vying for the two-year Position 2 legislative seat Tharinger has held for five terms in a district that holds 108,000 voters. It covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and half of Grays Harbor County.
Ballots will be mailed to voters Oct. 14 for the Nov. 3 election.
Tharinger, the House Capital Budget Committee chair, laid out his legislative accomplishments. He cited successful efforts obtaining funds for the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Townsend, and for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula and the Waterfront Center, both in Port Angeles.
A member of the Health Care and Wellness Committee and Appropriations Committee, Tharinger said he helped bring two dental clinics to Clallam and Jefferson counties and was a key player in achieving higher Medicaide reimbursement rates to 24th District hospitals.
Pruiett, a 34-year Army veteran, said he is against a state income tax, which Tharinger said he has supported.
Pruitt said he is against business and occupation taxes “that keep increasing every year,” opposes a carbon tax, is “pro-life,” and is for choice on schools.
He said the state needs to “resource” home schooling, asserting the current education system produces unacceptably low graduation rates.
Tharinger said taxpayers’ money should go to charter schools, but that funds should be overseen by an elected body — school boards.
“Generally, the public dollars should go to the public school system, but there are some advantages to [having] charter schools that meet specific needs,” he said.
Tharinger said there would be an advantage to the B & O tax assessing net proceeds, not the current tax’s gross proceeds.
Asked about fulfilling the need for manufacturing jobs, especially in the area of pharmaceuticals, Pruiett said the sector needs to be “decentralized” to areas such as the North Olympic Peninsula. He said traffic lanes should be widened and passing lanes added on U.S. Highway 101 in Clallam County and state Highway 104 in Jefferson County to aid in that effort.
Pruiett did not say how the infrastructure projects would be funded.
Tharinger said there needs to be a nationwide policy to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.
Pruiett, who served two tours during the war in Afghanistan, said his supervision of six Army directorates gives him a good foundation for being a lawmaker.
He disagreed with Gov. Jay Inslee’s shutdown of nonessential businesses in March to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
Tharinger did not directly answer sharp, sometimes mocking criticism from Pruiett.
Pruiett took him to task for what Pruiett said was the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and said Tharinger should retire from politics, using a question about lost freedoms to make his point.
Dr. Scott Brooksby of Sequim asked both candidates what they would do to “get our rights back and our freedoms back and get government to get out of manipulating what we can and cannot do.” He included religious rights among those he believes are being compromised.
“I guess I question a little bit your premise that we’ve lost all these rights,” Tharinger said, adding he needed more specificity about what Brooksby was referring to instead of a broad grievance.
He said he assumed Brooksby was referring to COVID-19 health restrictions.
Tharinger responded that state law gives broad authority to public health officials to set science-based restrictions, saying that “makes sense” and praising Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke and Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank.
State and local public health officials “have done a really good job of one, trying to control the virus and keep the economy going, and two, creating a healthy environment for people that controls the virus,” Tharinger said.
“I think we’re doing pretty well with that.
“Actually, our freedom, our economic strength, actually comes from us acting collectively to manage the virus.”
Pruiett pounced on Tharinger’s assessment.
“So you think we’re doing well?” Pruiett responded, ignoring the question of government manipulation.
He addressed Tharinger repeatedly by his first name and suggested Tharinger was personally responsible for what Pruiett said was the state’s failed response to the pandemic.
He asked Tharinger if he was “totally unaware” of a 2013 state pandemic response plan that Pruiett said covered stockpiling of testing materials and personal protective equipment, an effort he said was was not funded by the Legislature.
“What happened in February and March and April and May, Steve?
“Are you responsible for a failure to help our state prepare for [the] pandemic when you failed to use your position when you were chair of several things I heard.
“What happened, Steve? I mean, we’re all wanting to know.
“We’ve had more people die, and more are dying.
“We could have had a head start.”
He segued into accusing Tharinger of wanting to take away people’s rights to defend their families and homes.
Pruiett said he saw “an increasing danger” to the public that Tharinger is not addressing.
“You know, you don’t come out against this rioting, you don’t come out against the pillaging and looting [and] obstructing traffic,” said Pruiett.
“We see that as a safety issue.”
In his opening statement, Pruiett had referred to a “creeping anarchy” that people should not have to worry about.
In his closing statement, Pruiett cited “clear distinctions” between him and Tharinger, referring to his military experience.
“I’m focused on weeding out inefficiency, poor management of money and getting better results from what we do spend,” Pruiett said.
“Nobody wants to have more financial stress, but by taking more money, how can you have anything else?”
Tharinger did not directly defend himself against Pruitt’s criticisms.
“I’m a pragmatic problem solver, and I’m not too into conjecture and conspiracy,” Tharinger said in his closing statement.
“I think there’s a lot of that around, there’s a lot of politics of grievance, and a lot of politics of complaint, and I don’t think that really helps us.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].